A group of Georgian mothers tried to have certain library books banned by reading aloud sexual passages at school board meetings. Now, after the council banned one of the mothers from attending, the group claims in a federal trial that their First Amendment rights have been violated.
Essentially, members of the group, which dubbed themselves the Mama Bears, argue that they are being censored — in their own pursuit of censorship.
At a February school board meeting in Forsyth County, Georgia, Mama Bears member Alison Hair wanted to draw attention to a book available at her son’s college library, according to the lawsuit. Flipping to a page of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel about a 9-year-old boy whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, Hair began reading: “I know you give someone a blowjob by putting your penis…”
That’s all she did before Board of Education President Wesley McCall interrupted her. He reminded her of “the rules we talked about at the start” of the meeting regarding the council’s policy on “profaning comments”. He also let her know that “we understand your point of view” and said the district already had a verification system in place “so that these books are not read aloud to students.”
Hair continued to try to speak for the three minutes allotted to him, demanding to be given back the time McCall had spent interrupting him. “Here’s what I’m here to tell you,” she said. “I am here to face evil.”
McCall interrupted him again: “Your time is up.”
Hair returned to the Forsyth school board meeting the following month, again trying to read a book and again getting cut. The board then sent her a letter banning her from attending school board meetings until she agreed to follow board policies: “It was clear that your intent was not to comment on the board in the public forum, but to disrupt the school board meeting to draw attention to you and your beliefs.
The lawsuit, filed in late July by the Institute for Free Speech on behalf of Hair, Mama Bears of Forsyth County and Mama Bears President Cindy Martin, claims that “the Forsyth County School Board, embarrassed through debate over his choices, has gone so far as to silence and banish from his meetings any parent who simply reads aloud from the books in his school library.
Del Kolde, a senior attorney with the Institute for Free Speech Institute representing the plaintiffs, said of the lawsuit, “It’s not about censoring the books. It’s about reading books in a public place. We see no irony.
“For me, the irony is, if you put books in the system, why can’t I read them in a public place?” Hair told ProPublica. “But again, it’s not about books. This is my right to talk to the school board about concerns we have about our children.
According to Kevin Goldberg, a lawyer and First Amendment scholar with the nonprofit free speech advocacy group Freedom Forum, “there is at least some merit to the lawsuit. The premise is valid. (Forsyth County Schools Communications Director Jennifer Caracciolo said the district and school board could not comment on ongoing litigation; individual school board members did not respond to requests for comment.)
Goldberg points out that “the First Amendment gives parents the right to petition.” And he notes that “the costume isn’t the first of its kind and probably won’t be the last, because it has legs.”
Below, Goldberg comments on the lawsuit. ProPublica provided relevant excerpts from the lawsuit to give additional context to Goldberg’s analysis.
Court case: The plaintiffs – mothers who wish to protect their young children from the questionable choices of the defendants – want to exercise their right to criticize the placement of pornographic books in school libraries by accurately reading these books aloud at public meetings. The language of books, after all, best illustrates why parents argue that books are not suitable for school. The plaintiffs want to read these books aloud because they want to arouse in these elected officials, and in their fellow citizens participating in the debate, the same emotions that struck them when they read these words for the first time; embarrassment and motivation to action. They want their audiences, including elected board members, to hear the jarring, disturbing, and sexually graphic words in their original medium. If requesters cannot read these excerpts, then the power of their message is lost, in effect, the message itself is censored.
Goldberg: Parents have the right — and frankly, we want to that they have the right — to speak at these meetings. They also have the right to express themselves as they see fit, and that right should be very broad. That’s why I think this case has merit.
Court case: At the February 15, 2022 school board meeting, defendant McCall adopted the practice of opening each public comment period by claiming to read the public participation policy, although he added language that is not found in politics. This verbal variation of the policy adds a new category of things councils can censor: a reading of something “inappropriate”.
“We want to remind our citizens that public participation is about bringing issues or concerns to council” [the lawsuit quotes McCall as saying] “but in doing so, we do not allow profane comments or comments that involve inappropriate public topics. If your comments include anything that you might read tonight is… inappropriate to state in public, you will be asked to stop.”
Goldberg: The policy as written is problematic, I think, from a First Amendment perspective. But certainly when you go out of the script it raises a host of First Amendment issues, mostly because it tends to be vague.
The biggest problem with blurring is that I don’t know how to moderate or calculate my speech, which means I’m likely to censor myself to stay out of trouble. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Blurring also leads to selective application. What we end up seeing here is one part being told to shut up because it’s inappropriate or disruptive.
Court case: Protecting the innocence of Forsyth County children is at the heart of Mama Bears and its members. Prohibiting the availability of pornographic material in school libraries is one of the main concerns of the group. …
The Mama Bears have identified over a hundred books that they believe are inappropriate.
Goldberg: One of the stated purposes of their exercising their First Amendment right in this issue is to prohibit the availability of pornographic material in school libraries. But pornography is protected by the First Amendment, and there’s no clear evidence that any of these materials are actually pornographic.
The First Amendment right of parents is absolutely necessary for them to speak up, to be part of the process. This is what makes the process work. This is what helps us make a final decision. But parents should not make this decision. Parents should not impose this decision. And it’s my real concern, that when they impose their decisions, their preferences on everyone, we run into another First Amendment problem. They are now seeking to use the process to restrict the First Amendment rights of other parents.
Court case: On March 17, 2022, Wes McCall sent Hair a letter prohibiting her from attending future public meetings until she provided a written guarantee that she would follow the rules for public participation and her guidelines. …
Although Hair did not attend any meetings after March 15, on May 11, 2022, the entire FCS Board of Directors sent Hair a second letter, signed by each Respondent Board Member, confirming that he was forbidden to attend public meetings.
Goldberg: i hope they [the school board members] would push to keep as many of these books as possible in the library, but at the same time they were closing the floor.
Cohen v. California was a really fun and interesting Supreme Court case that was decided about 50 years ago. It’s better known as the “fuck the draft” case, where the guy is wearing the LA County Courthouse jacket that says “fuck the draft” on the back.
The court said, look, I mean, one man’s vulgarity is another man’s word. If you don’t like it, look away. We don’t think the mere presence of swear words is enough to punish someone.
Well, I think that applies here. If you can use the words “fuck the draft” in a courthouse, you can use them at a school board meeting.
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